Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
II: The Division Moves Up
II: The Division Moves Up
It was in these circumstances that Montgomery ordered 2 New Zealand Division forward to concentrate in an area between Furci and Gissi. Relinquishing its sector to the New Zealanders, 8 Indian Division would sidestep to the right so as to concentrate 5 Corps more powerfully for the main drive in the coastal area. For the time being, however, 19 Indian Brigade would mask the advent of a fresh division by continuing to hold the New Zealand sector. As another phase of an elaborate plan to deceive the enemy as to the direction of the impending attack, the Division was forbidden to open wireless communication, the tanks of 4 Armoured Brigade were to be camouflaged in the forward areas and, where possible, units were to move up by night.
These orders found the Division widely dispersed, with some units at Lucera and others still at Taranto awaiting the arrival of their vehicles. The later units, on their way to the front, staged at Lucera to collect the stores they had grounded before leaving Egypt. Every day between 11 and 22 November units left the staging camp for the forward area, travelling by way of Serracapriola and Termoli over roads that made movement strictly an operation of war. The discipline of mechanised march was put to the test not by the enemy but by steep gradients, dangerously winding routes, narrow verges (or none at all) on which to pull vehicles off the road, and improvised detours where bridges had been destroyed and where now lines of traffic, in mutual frustration, bunched in slow knots which convoy leaders and military police, shouting above reverberant engines, strove to unravel. The roads and deviations were most troublesome to the tanks, and eventually they had to be routed separately by way of minor roads as far as possible. Even so, they slithered across greasy surfaces into ditches and straggled in to their destination of Furci singly or in casual groups.
Nearer the front traffic control became even more difficult, notably at a deviation and ford over the River Osento, about three miles page 46 east of Atessa on the Division's main axis. Here, on the afternoon of 18 November, 6 Brigade arrived to complicate an existing blockage and for a while movement came to a standstill; it was twelve hours before the brigade got clear of the crossing. The next day at the same spot the passage of divisional artillery was slowed up by interloping units, moving the provosts to despair of speeding the traffic through ‘short of giving them wings’. On the 17th (to cite a final illustration of the vexations of travel), as a result of congestion and demolitions on both sides of Casalanguida, 4 Field Regiment took eight hours to move seven miles to a new gun position.
Such delays elicited special instructions on road discipline from Divisional Headquarters, including an order permitting the use of trucks on the roads only on essential business. Off the roads, trucks were of limited utility on any business, essential or incidental, for they would sink with spinning wheels into the mud of the fields. Since gun positions were hard to find, the artillery was given priority in occupying bivouac areas. As he struggled across miry hillsides or along choked roads, many an old soldier must have spared a wistful thought for the dry footholds and the vast vacuities of the desert.
The leaders in this unavoidably ragged deployment were Divisional Headquarters, which established itself on 14 November south of Gissi. Support of 19 Indian Brigade was an important motive, and high up in the order of arrival were 2 Divisional Cavalry Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant)1, 4 and 5 Field Regiments (Lieutenant-Colonels Philp2 and Thornton3 respectively), batteries of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Kensington)4 and units of the engineers and of the medical corps. Close behind came 4 Armoured Brigade, and among the last arrivals were the two brigades of infantry.
The enemy on this front was not then impressive. The sector from the coast to the confluence of the Sangro and Aventino rivers, in which the Eighth Army was assembling three divisions, was held, though precariously as the event was to show, by 65 Infantry Division, an unseasoned and ill-equipped formation of mixed nationalities, which had recently been brought down from the north. On its right, south of the Aventino, was the stronger and completely mechanised 16 Panzer Division, with fifteen to twenty Mark IV tanks and twenty self-propelled guns in addition to the normal field artillery and two regiments of lorried infantry.
The million small deeds by which a military formation moves and has its being are like the separate strokes of the painter's brush, which compose themselves into intelligible purpose and design only when observed from a distance as parts of a total picture. The little strokes of effort that were applied in the first fortnight of the Division's fighting in Italy arrange themselves into a picture of preparation for the crossing of the Sangro in strength. Four preliminary tasks had to be completed. The enemy had to be evicted from the area south and east of the river; the high ground in the angle formed by the junction of the Sangro and the Aventino, commanding the stretch of river across which the attack was to be launched, had to be cleared; the river itself and the enemy territory immediately beyond it had to be reconnoitred for the most convenient fords and bridge sites, for minefields and strongpoints; and the roads and tracks leading to the river had to be cleared of mines, repaired, maintained and even, occasionally, built.
The timetable for the discharge of these tasks lay at the mercy of the weather, inland because a downpour among the mountains would cause the river to rise with disconcerting rapidity and locally page 48 because muddy roads and sodden ground almost immobilised the armour and made the movement of supporting arms chancy and unreliable. The weather was already breaking when the first elements of the Division moved into the line, with snow on the peaks and widespread rain and mist, and the original plan for rolling up the eastern flank of the winter position before winter came had to be postponed and finally conceived afresh. It was a time, in the old parlance of the horse gunner, of ‘rugs on, rugs off’. As the scowling skies opened and the rivers rose in flood, the hopes faded of a stolen march, of a comparatively dryshod dash by tanks to the lateral road from Pescara to Rome. Expectations had to be revised, objectives shortened and methods made more deliberate.
By 20 November the enemy opposite the New Zealanders was back across the river and patrolling across it was in full swing; by the 25th the menacing ‘hump’ between the rivers on the Division's left was occupied by the Indian brigade and the two New Zealand infantry brigades were in the line; and on the night of 27–28 November the weather had so far relented as to permit a crossing of the river by the two New Zealand brigades and then, with all the meditated force and fraud of a battle by the book, a drive up the slope into the bony knuckles of the Sangro ridge, where the Germans proposed to spend the winter. By 3 December the Germans had abandoned this ridge and that morning a company of New Zealand infantry made a brief incursion into the town of Orsogna, which the enemy had hurriedly adopted as a fortress. Such are the events which will engage our attention in this chapter and in the next.
1 Brig I. L. Bonifant, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d.; Gisborne; born Ashburton, 3 Mar 1912; stock agent; CO 25 Bn Sep 1942–Jan 1943; Div Cav Jan 1943–Apr 1944; comd 6 Bde 3–27 Mar 1944; 5 Bde Jan–May 1945; 6 Bde Jun–Oct 1945.
3 Brig L. W. Thornton, OBE, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Christchurch, 15 Oct 1916; Regular soldier; BM 6 Bde Feb–Sep 1942; GSO II 2 NZ Div Oct 1942–Jun 1943; CO 5 Fd Regt Jun–Dec 1943, Apr–Jun 1944; GSO I 2 NZ Div 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div 1945; DCGS Apr 1948–Jan 1949; Commandant, Linton Military Camp, Jan 1949–May 1951; QMG Army HQ 1955–56; Adjutant-General Mar 1956–.